In contrast to other art forms – like music, writing and painting – photography is unique because it has technology at its very core. In fact, film-making is the only other mainstream art form that can really compare, and that’s partly because the two technologies are so closely related.
But despite this reliance on new technology, photography isn’t as young as you might expect. In fact, most people cite 1839 as the birth year of practical photography, because this was the year in which Louis Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype process, the first public-facing photographic process. In the same year, William Henry Fox Talbot presented negative film and prints – which are still the basis of much of today’s photography.
The roots of photography go back even further to 1826. That was the year that Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the world’s first photograph. As you might expect from such a prototype, the resolution wasn’t great. On top of that, the process required eight hours of exposure time, and the picture was still fuzzy and far from perfect.
The First True Photographs
After Niépce demonstrated the viability of photographic technology, other pioneers took the concept and developed it (if you’ll pardon the pun). Ten years after Niépce, Daguerre had the exposure time down to just a few minutes, and the image was sharper too. But there was still a lot of work to be done before cameras would evolve into the technology that we know today.
Daguerre was also responsible for one of the most famous photos in the early days of photography. His daguerreotype, “Boulevard du Temple”, was taken in 1838 and is believed to be the earliest ever photograph to include people. One year later, Robert Cornelius rigged up a camera to take the world’s first ever selfie in a photograph that would go on to become iconic.
The earliest photographers were true tinkerers, innovators who experimented with the form in more ways than you might imagine. For example, the first aerial photograph was taken over 150 years ago, back in 1860. Intrepid photographer James Wallace Black took a photo of Boston from 2,000 feet in the air in a hot air balloon.
The Birth of Portable Cameras
The earliest cameras were large and cumbersome, often using individual glass plates that were fragile and difficult to move around. Because of this, most early photographers would set up a studio and invite people to come to them. It was a far cry from today’s cameras, which are so small that multiple cameras can be fitted to a mobile phone.
That all changed in 1888, thanks to George Eastman’s development of flexible film. He introduced the Kodak camera – a name that you might be familiar with – and revolutionized the art form in the process. His camera was easy to use, portable and loaded with a roll of film. It opened the technology up to new photographers while simultaneously making it much, much easier to carry a camera around with you.
Of course, the earliest photographs were in black and white, and it took time for technology to develop enough for color photography to be possible. There were early signs of color photography as early as 1848, and Thomas Sutton took the first true color photograph in 1861, although the results were far from perfect.
It wasn’t until a quarter of a century later in 1873, when Hermann Wilhelm Vogel found a new way to make emulsions sensitive to the full spectrum of colors, that color photography went from an exciting possibility to a glorious reality. And by the mid-1880s, color cameras were on sale and in commercial use.
One of the most well-known examples of historical colored photography takes place around this era. In 1877, photographer Louis Arthur Ducos du Hauron took a photo of southern France that still stands up to the test of time. Du Hauron was also the mastermind behind the process that allowed the photo to be developed, showing that many early photographers were also key to the development of the form.
Digital photography arrived on the scene much, much later, after the development of digital memory and the digitization of images. Early digital cameras were used primarily in high-tech industries, with some being built into spy satellites and spacecraft.
In 1975, an engineer at Kodak called Steven Sasson attempted to build a digital camera using computer chips that had been developed by Fairchild Semiconductor. The camera was heavy and unwieldy, with a resolution of 0.01 megapixels, but it introduced the world to the concept. Commercial digital cameras arrived later on, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Throughout the years, digital technologies have continued to pave the way for new forms of technology such as 3D photography. It’s likely that photographic techniques will continue to develop over the coming years, with new forms of photography within our lifetime.
So: How Old is Photography?
It turns out that this question isn’t an easy one to answer. Photography has a long, rich history, with multiple milestones along the way. If someone asks you how old photography is, the correct response is, “What type of photography do you mean?”
Still, broadly speaking, you can track the age of photography along a timeline:
- Photography itself is 190 years old.
- Portrait photography is 179 years old and
- Self-portraiture is 178 years old.
- Aerial photography is 157 years old,
- Color photography is 156 years old and
- Portable cameras are 129 years old.
- Digital photography, the new kid on the block, is still 42 years old,
Photography, then, is as old as you want it to be. But whatever type of photography you’re talking about, it fits into a wider history that’s been defined by the visionary photographers and researchers who came before us.
Technology will continue to define photography in the years to come.